Monday, January 31, 2005

Another illiberal democracy

"Elections are not democracy," writes Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek. There are three conditions that a country has to meet in order to be a liberal democracy, and Iraq isn't close to meeting any of them, he says. Read the full article, and for more on illiberal democracies, read his wonderful book, The Future of Freedom.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Don't oversell the blog

In a wonderful piece in Slate, Jack Shafer puts some of the hype around blogs into perspective. He writes:
The danger of fetishizing a new technology (the Porta-Pak) or a new media wrinkle (the blog) is obvious: In the rush to define the new new thing and celebrate its wonders, the human tendency to oversell kicks in. Am I the only one who remembers how John Perry Barlow, drunk on the Web nine years ago, issued his ridiculous "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace"? In hyperbolic fashion, Barlow wrote, "We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before." Lenin subscribed to this sort of technological moonbeamism when he declared that socialism plus electricity would equal communism, and we know where that led.

Well, the bit about Lenin was overstating the case slightly, but I agree with Shafer – blogs are no threat to established journalism, but just another medium of it, with advantages no other medium can offer. Blogs complement rather than endanger other forms of journalism.

(For more of my views on this, hop over to India Uncut and read "Blogs – The New Journalism".)

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Epic implausibility

On her first day of looking for work in Hollywood, who gives her a lift in his car? Cecil B. DeMille. Of course he does. Frank Lloyd Wright designs a house for her. Years later, when she's famous, the sage of selfishness, ensconced in her Murray Hill eyrie, a young fellow by the name of Alan Greenspan becomes a member of the slightly creepy set that sits at the great woman's feet. Apparently he went on to achieve some prominence in later life.

In "A Strangely Important Figure", Andrew Stuttaford writes that none of these things mattered to Ayn Rand, the subject of his essay. Only ideas mattered. "They were everything."

Link via Arts and Letters Daily.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Enduring literature

In an excellent profile of Ian McEwan, Robert McCrum says that "[i]n 2105, readers will turn to his [McEwan's] work to understand Britain's painful years of post-imperial transition." Read McCrum's piece here, and an excerpt from McEwan's latest novel, Saturday, here.

Evaluating art

That excellent blogger, Amardeep Singh, has an interesting post about how art is valued. Amardeep discusses the merits of the art ranking system devised by, which uses "econometrical methods" to grade artists, exhibitions and venues. He writes:
The interest of thinking in this way is that it could potentially make art critics somewhat irrelevant as determiners of value. Are they already? What is the real value of their mediation? The same questions could and should be asked of literary critics and film critics. What is the value of formal, institutional literary criticism in an era of Amazon sales rankings and DIY reviews? What is the value of film criticism in an era of "Rotten Tomatoes"?

These questions suggest a tilt towards market fundamentalism. Do I really subscribe to that ethos? No, this is more of a thought-experiment. Even if the aesthetic value works of art is directly indexed to market value, there might still be ways to value the role of criticism. One such might be to think of critics as themselves market players. That is what an index like Rotten Tomatoes does -- it creates a statistical value that averages the opinions of film critics. Because those critics are pretty reliable, it represents a reliable stat. We'll have to see if the index that is the inspiration for this post will be as good...

Here's the chart.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Are you biased?

Well, maybe you're the wrong person to ask. (And in case you want to know about me, of course I'm not.) Anyway, check out this wonderful section in Wikipedia that lists out all the cognitive biases that we humans are subject to. Read every one of them – it's fascinating stuff.

Link via MadMan.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Will "libertarian" go the way of "liberal"?

Words and their meanings shift disturbingly: the classical liberal of a century ago, in America, is probably a moderate conservative now. The term "liberal" has shifted alarmingly leftwards over the last few decades, to the extent that it's almost become a pejorative. George W Bush kept accusing John Kerry of being a liberal though their presidential debates, and an outraged Kerry kept denying it. The European "liberal" hasn't quite shifted that leftwards, and still means someone in favour of free markets to many people.

And is it now the turn of "libertarian"? In a piece titled "John Locke Lite" in Reason magazine, Tom Palmer examines how the left is trying to usurp the term. He writes:
Advocates of massive redistribution who seek to make every property title subject to expropriation have decided they want to be known as “libertarians.” Since it’s hard to appropriate a label outright, they’re willing to share it: They have taken to calling themselves “left libertarians,” to distinguish themselves from “right libertarians.” One of them, Philippe van Parijs, uses the term “real libertarianism,” because he feels real liberty is about doing whatever you want to do, which means you have a right to be comfortably supported by others, even if you are able-bodied but refuse to produce anything and instead spend all your time surfing and hanging out.

Sigh. On a related note, read Ravikiran Rao's post on how labels change their meanings through the years.

Blue state, red state

Tom Friedman writes, in "An American in Paris", that Europe is "the world's biggest 'blue state'" and Iran is "the ultimate 'red state'". Excellent piece, read the full thing.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

"The slaves of the 21st century"

A year ago, a pimp handed me a quivering teenage girl. Her name was Srey Neth, and she was one of the hundreds of thousands of teenagers who are enslaved by the sex trafficking industry worldwide.

Then I did something dreadfully unjournalistic: I bought her.

From "Leaving the Brothel Behind", a beautiful piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Restraint and civil war

Iraq shows all the signs of descending into civil war, says Fareed Zakaria in his column for Newsweek, except for one. The strongest grouping in the country, that of the Shias, led by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is showing restraint, and refusing to respond to insurgent attacks on it. Will it last after they get an absolute majority in the elections? Zakaria thinks so.

Miracles and Wonder

I'd written earlier about how the tsunami had brought about hordes of theories on why it took place ("A search for causes"), and James Pinkerton has now touched upon the same topic in a lovely piece in Tech Central Station titled. "Tsunami Miracles". Pinkerton writes that we are not quite headed towards an age of reason yet, because "[t]he combination of traumatic events and dramatic, even melodramatic, reporting will help create a new Age of Miracles and Wonder."

Read the full thing.

The Instapundit Test

We live in polarising times, and Cass Sunstein argues in the Boston Review that the internet makes it worse, by enabling us to filter all the information that we recieve. Sunstein writes:
[F]rom the standpoint of democracy, filtering is a mixed blessing. An understanding of the mix will permit us to obtain a better sense of what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression. In a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another. [Emphasis in the original.]

James Miller disputes Sunstein's assertion, though, in an excellent essay in Tech Central Station titled "The Depolarizing Power of the Blogosphere". "Although the Blogosphere can polarize," Miller writes, "I believe that on net it will reduce political differences among Americans." He elaborates:
Americans are ideologically divided but also connected across multiple dimensions. The Internet does allow individuals to find niche blogs which cater to their particular viewpoints. But the web also has blogs which bypass traditional ideological divides. For example, although the mainstream media views politics through a Republican / Democratic lens, some of the most popular blogs take a libertarian viewpoint that, depending on the issue, could favor either party. I suspect that many Americans who had considered themselves Democratic-hating Republicans found, after visiting blogs such as Asymmetrical Information, that they really are somewhat libertarian and in fact on a few issues had more in common with the Democratic left than the Christian right. [Emphasis in the original.]

He ends by proposing what may well come to be called "The Instapundit Test". He writes: "The links on represent the most popular filter used in the Blogosphere. If you click regularly on Instapundit's links then a good test of how filters affect polarization is whether Instapundit causes you to read more or less diverse material."

I'm an Instapundit junkie, and there is no question that the most popular blog on the internet has certainly increased, by far, the diversity of my reading. QED.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Eavesdropping on Gladwell and Surowiecki

Two of the best books I’ve read over the last few months have been The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Both men write for the the New Yorker, and both are transforming, with their work, our understanding of the world we live in.

I wondered once how it must be to be a fly on the wall while they sit around at wherever New Yorker staffers go for lunch and discuss their books. What insights would develop, what arguments would take place? Well, we’re all flies now, and it’s a large wall. As part of the Slate feature called The Book Club, Gladwell and Surowiecki have got together to discuss, via email, their books. Listen in.

The curtains open

After a rather long absence, The Middle Stage resumes. I spent about 10 days travelling through the tsunami-affected areas of Tamil Nadu, and reporting on my experiences on India Uncut. All of my despatches from that period are archived at my sub-blog, India Uncut – The Tsunami Posts. I have now resumed regular blogging at India Uncut ... and here.

Thank you for your patience.